Romans 1 is one of the most frequently-cited passages in the New Testament when it comes to the topic of homosexuality. I considered simply reposting one of my earlier posts on the subject, but it seemed worthwhile taking the time to focus instead on one specific aspect of the passage. In Romans 1, Paul talks about homosexuality not as a sin, but as a divine punishment for sin. He never says “Because people lusted for people of the same gender, therefore…” they were punished. It is consistently that people have glorified the creature rather than the Creator, or done other such things, and therefore God gave them over to homosexuality.
If we look carefully at the language Paul uses, we notice that the terminology Paul uses for such intercourse not that of sin but that of shame and dishonor. Looking at the background to this language may help us understand why Paul could think of homosexuality as a punishment from God. Paul’s viewpoint appears to be that homosexual intercourse is shameful and contrary to nature, and it is important to look to Paul’s ancient historical-cultural context in determining what such language would mean to him and his readers. Our idea of “natural” intercourse more often has to do with “tab A fitting into slot B.” In Paul’s time, the thinking about nature, gender and intercourse was that men are by nature active and women by nature passive. What would seemed shameful in this ancient honor-shame cultural context was the transgressing of such gender roles, with men demeaning themselves by taking the passive female role, and conversely women taking on the active role which is by nature male.
I suspect most readers are finding themselves instinctively objecting to the above characterization of the “nature” of men and women. And this is the crucial point. If we do not accept what Paul considered “natural” and thus do not accept that men taking on traditional female roles is inherently “shameful,” then it is clear that in our context we are not going to be able to view homosexuality in the way Paul did.
I hope that the aforementioned points about the cultural background to Romans 1 will generate discussion. Ultimately, however, the point in Romans 1-2 is not about homosexuality, either as sin or as punishment. It is to get Jewish readers to agree in thinking of Gentiles in stereotypical ways and condemning them, only to find that they must condemn themselves if they wish to be consistent. And so any Christian who joins in the condemnation found in Romans 1, and does not read on to Romans 2 and come to understand themselves as condemned, has missed Paul’s point entirely, and placed themselves in the role of Paul’s opponents rather than adopting Paul’s own stance.
[Just as a sort of footnote, the idea that an adult male of a greater age and social status taking on the passive role brought shame upon himself is the reason why pederasty was the most common form of homosexual relationship in Greek society. If you look at the images from antiquity I’ve included in this post, you’ll notice they always depict an adult bearded male coupled with a younger one.]